How to Create a Team Communication Policy to Improve Productivity
Maybe you or your team members keep two monitors connected to your computer and on at all times—one monitor to keep an eye on incoming communication so you can be timely with responses, and the other monitor for doing “real work.” But you probably don’t know that operating this way actually sabotages your productivity.
Worse, maybe you and your team members can never fully relax after-hours, because you anticipate a work-related message could arrive at any moment. But did you know that a study out of Virginia Tech showed that after-hours work communications can create anxiety not only for the employee but also their loved ones?
In a popular article I wrote for Harvard Business Review, I explained how we got into the unhealthy situation with email that the Virginia Tech study highlights. And I discussed how to implement a company email policy that protects employees’ productivity and well-being.
This article expands on my thoughts. I’ll walk you through the steps to create a corporate communications policy that encompasses email and all of your communication channels. Then I’ll show you how to maximize buy-in to bring your team members on board.
7 Steps to a Team Communication Policy
In my experience, team communication is one of the biggest sources of inefficiency in an organization. The flag that this is a problem is when team members receive more than one communication for one issue, such as the dreaded chat that pops up and reads, “Hey, I just sent you an email.” Multiply this by how often it typically happens to one employee (often) and the number of employees in your organization, and you can see how this drastically increases the volume of communication, but decreases the efficiency of communication.
I teach my clients about the importance of creating guidelines for communication, and I created the attached chart and steps to make it easy for them to get started with their own guidelines for setting up a company or teamwide communication policy. These steps will benefit any size organization.
I recommend following the steps below with your entire leadership team to generate buy-in and uncover any stumbling blocks.
1. Define Terms
The first task of the policy-setting team should be to explicitly define terms. This way, as you set your policy, you can be sure you’re all speaking the same language. Be as explicit and clear as possible with your definitions.
Acknowledge that it’s an ongoing task, and definitions might change as you dig into the process.
Here are some terms that might be helpful to define before proceeding:
- Time sensitive
- Work-life balance
- Asynchronous communication
- Synchronous communication
Oftentimes, people aren’t familiar with the last two terms, so you can explain that a synchronous communication channel is one where it’s reasonable for the message sender to expect an instant reply. For example, if two people are on a Zoom call and one asks a question, that person can expect to receive a response in real time.
Asynchronous communication channels, on the other hand, are those where the sender of the message doesn’t expect an immediate response. For example, if one person posts something to a project management tool and knows team members will access it as the need arises, with either no response, or a delay in response time, that’s asynchronous.
I have a two-part series in Forbes that goes into much more detail on the terms you may want to define for your company to ensure alignment and success with implementing your new communication policy.
In any case, be open to revisiting your definitions as you work through the next steps of the process.
2. Shift from “business hours” to “communication hours”
With people working remotely and on global teams, the term “business hours” is no longer relevant. Instead, I suggest using the term “communication hours.”
The next step is to set your corporate communication hours. During these hours, everyone will be able to communicate using regular channels. Later in the process, you will outline exactly how and what to communicate outside of these communication hours.
The goal here is to prevent a 24-7 “always on” work culture that can quickly lead employees to burn out. Instead, by defining communication hours, and giving special protection to the other hours, you can set your employees up to get the rest and restoration they need to be their most productive selves.
Let’s say you’re a company leader who is based at corporate headquarters on the east coast of the U.S. You might set communications hours for 8am-6pm Eastern Time. If you have direct reports in Tokyo, those employees will use the workday communication channels during 8am-6pm Japan Standard Time.
If these Tokyo-based team members want to send you an email outside of your communication hours they can, but they shouldn’t expect an instant reply. Alternatively, they can use the delay send feature on their email platform so that their messages will land in their team leader’s inbox between 8am-6pm US Eastern Time.
Team members in the same or similar time zones can work whenever it’s appropriate, based on their schedule, but this can prevent them from imposing their work hours on other people. If someone took the afternoon off and is working in the evening instead, they can use the “schedule send” feature of your email client to have the message go out during communication hours.
Also, you can use the global settings on your team chat tool to set everyone to “away” outside of communication hours.
3. Make a list of official communication channels
List the channels that your corporate teams use regularly to communicate about work with both internal and external stakeholders.
In addition to email, you can consider chat channels such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, meeting conference channels like Zoom, phone calls, audio recordings, pre-recorded videos, texting, and any others.
If you use social media to communicate outside the organization, ask yourself if you need to monitor your social media channels for customer queries and/or complaints. If yes, include the specific platforms you use, such as Facebook or Twitter.
However, if you use social media for one-way communication, such as for sharing special event pictures internally, but no one expects to receive a work assignment via social media, then you can leave those social media platforms off your list.
4. Separate these channels into synchronous and asynchronous
Now that you have the list of platforms your company uses to communicate, you’ll want to divide the list between synchronous and asynchronous channels.
A word of caution: In most companies, email is handled as a synchronous communications tool, and this is where the trouble begins.
Email should be an asynchronous tool, and, in rare cases, it can be used to send urgent, time-sensitive messages. However, there are other, better channels for doing that, such as texting or making a phone call.
Later in this article, I will go into detail about why using email as a synchronous communication channel undermines productivity and creates needless stress. So be sure to read all the way through before you start working on your new corporate communications policy.
In any case, if your team members currently use email as a synchronous tool but you want to start using it as an asynchronous tool, then it belongs in the asynchronous column.
5. Create a communications policy grid
The next step is to create a grid that has three columns: one for the channel, one for during communication hours, and one for after communication hours. Then add as many rows as communication channels you’ve identified.
Now fill in the grid. This is the heart of the process, so don’t rush. Give any differences of opinion time for consideration.
List all the channels your team or company uses in the column on the left, and be sure to label each channel either synchronous or asynchronous.
In the next two columns, you’ll add a brief explanation of how you expect each channel to be used during communication hours, and after communication hours
6. If needed, create a separate grid for select teams or positions
You may want to create a separate communications policy grid for select teams that are customer-facing, or whose purpose is to field emergency requests, such as an internal tech support team.
However, before you do this, consider whether even a customer support position needs to immediately reply to incoming emails. Many leaders feel that a quick response is good and an immediate response is better when it comes to communicating with customers—especially new leads.
But is this always the case? Even your customer support workers need time to think proactively and thoughtfully, in order to provide the highest quality assistance to your potential and existing customers. What’s more, you’ve worked hard to build your reputation.
Consider whether you can take advantage of something that I call Reputation Capital. It’s the killer advantage that you probably aren’t leveraging.
In many cases, if your company has earned a good name, people are willing to wait longer than you may think for a reply—especially if waiting guarantees a more considered answer to their query. Cash in on your reputation capital to offer your customer-facing employees the support they need to do their best work.
Or, in the case of communications that need to be addressed immediately, can you assign one person at a time to handle that? No one can be on call 24/7, so if messages need to be answered outside of communication hours, make sure you address that intentionally. And it doesn’t matter if it “rarely happens.” The problem is the monitoring, not the frequency of the issue. If someone has to monitor their email all the time, for example, then they can never disconnect.
7. Roll out your policy and enforce it
Your policy has the potential to revolutionize your company culture and skyrocket productivity. But to do so, you’ll need to maximize buy-in from leaders and their direct reports.
The quick version of how to do this is that you need to ensure that leaders not only model the new behaviors (such as not emailing after hours if that’s your policy), but also they need to enforce the policy by calling out direct reports who may be violating it. (“Hey, I see you Slacked the team after our communication hours. Remember, we’re trying to use that channel only from 8am-6pm.”)
Now let’s dive deeper into the most successful strategies for getting company-wide adoption of a culture-changing corporate communications policy.
Your New Team Communication Policy: How to Maximize Buy-In
People will naturally resist making change, even if it’s going to relieve their stress and increase their productivity in the long run. For this reason, you may want to provide a rationale for implementing the new communication policy—one that reminds your team members that setting some boundaries will actually improve their lives.
Getting team members to adopt the new policy will require education and buy-in. To do this, you can get them to recognize the extent of the problems created by email. Ask questions, empathize with their answers, and then show how your new communication policy will provide a solution.
Problem 1: We don’t recognize email as real work
Ask your team members how many emails they get in a day and when they find the time to reply.
Many of my clients get 100 real emails every day. By “real emails,” I mean messages from people they know that require a thoughtful response. If it takes them two minutes to deal with each email, that’s 200 minutes a day or 3 hours and 20 minutes just on email. No wonder they’re desperate for a solution!
But too often my clients don’t think of email as “real work,” even though this is the primary way most of them communicate to do business.
They field leads and requests, and also make appointments via this channel, so they need to recognize time spent responding to emails as the real work it is. Explain how the new corporate communication policy recognizes email as real work that takes a significant amount of dedicated time to handle thoughtfully.
Problem 2: We treat email as a synchronous communication tool
Ask your colleagues if they expect to get an instant reply when they send an email. If not instant, how long do they expect to wait for a response? Most people will probably say that when they send an email message they expect a response quickly—if not immediately, then “soon.” Ask them to define “soon.” Is it within ten minutes? One hour? Three hours?
Ask how many of them use two monitors—one to monitor email, and one for “real” work? This requires constant task switching, which undermines the brainpower you hired them for in the first place. Do they think this multitasking is productive?
Empathize with your team members. Tell them that, of course, since it’s possible that time-senstive messages that require urgent attention could arrive via email, they are constantly scanning incoming messages just in case. However, this multitasking diverts their ability to manage their attention and prevents them from focusing on their most important tasks.
Explain that, from now on, your team or company will treat email as an asynchronous communication tool, one that is not used for urgent messages. Doing so will enable all of you to focus your full brainpower on whatever your most significant tasks are. Then later, at a scheduled time, you can process your email.
Explain that you’ve carefully analyzed each team’s role within the company, and that there may be different response times required, depending on a team’s function.
Problem 3: After-hours emails generate too much anxiety and stress
The Virginia Tech study found that even the expectation that an employee will have to deal with after-hours emails creates anxiety for both the employee and other important people in their life.
That anxiety and work-life imbalance do harm in many ways, including undermining employees’ productivity.
You may want to share the study and explain that you took this study’s finding to heart in designing your new corporate communications policy.
You want your team members to be able to find work-life balance. You want them to truly take their minds off of work at regular times throughout the week and when they’re on vacation. You know that doing so will only increase their productivity when they return to the job, refreshed and ready to unleash their genius in service of their most significant results.
The Power of Your Team Communications Policy
Creating a clear communication policy and implementing it successfully is one of the most powerful ways to improve work-life balance and productivity. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand.
Companies that communicate haphazardly and inefficiently wear their employees down through their always-on culture. This causes burnout, which leads to a whole host of other problems (turnover, stress, disengagement, etc), not the least of which is decreased productivity.
Instead, design a communication policy that will improve efficiency and support work-life balance. In doing so, you’ll see employees more excited to come to work, and more focused on achieving their most significant results. Win-win!
If you need help or want a trainer to guide you through the process, feel free to reach out to me here.